Having made their name playing the blues of their native Mali, Amadou & Mariam have become one of the leading global ambassadors for African music in recent years. Working with artists from Manu Chao and Damon Albarn to Coldplay, Scissor Sisters and U2, the couple have nonetheless managed to stay true to their roots. It’s an approach that reaches a pinnacle on new album Folila – featuring the likes of Santigold, TV On The Radio and Amp Fiddler. State spoke to Amadou Bagayoko about taking African music to the masses.
You’ve built a great international reputation over the years, was that hard to do?
It wasn’t too difficult because we’ve always been inspired by rock and blue across our career. We’ve always worked on the same principles. That connection is an open door to international audiences. Even if people don’t understand our music they can relate to the style.
Was western music tricky to access when you were younger?
It wasn’t so hard to find, but it wasn’t the type of music that everyone listened to. There were radio stations who played it and we also had friends who were pilots or stewardesses on the airlines who would bring music back from wherever they went.
Was it much of a culture shock to come to Europe for the first time in the mid-nineties?
It wasn’t because we were already surrounded by the European musical culture. People always felt our music would do well there. Sure there were differences in terms of lifestyle but we adapt pretty quickly.
You’ve managed to bring in a wide range of influences to your music…
We always wanted to do that, from our very first album. Music is such a universal language that other cultures just add to the colour.
How did the collaborations for Folila come about?
Most of the artists we’d come across already in one way or another, either live or on record. We’d met most of them so we called them in to take part in the project.
Despite the range of artists involved, the resulting sound is very natural….
We’ve always tried to find the link between our music and other forms, that’s always been in our minds not just to do a copy and paste of one style to another. It’s important to integrate one style into another, as well as other musicians.
Yet a lot of Western artists seem to miss that, happy simply to cherry pick whatever takes their fancy?
That’s absolutely possible. There are a lot of people who just go to Africa, record sounds and drop them into their music without understanding the mechanisms behind the culture that created it.
The track ‘Wily Kataso’ with TV On The Radio is a standout on the album, although they wouldn’t have seemed to be an obvious band to work with.
It doesn’t seem so but we picked them because of the way that they sang. We spent an afternoon together talking and listening to music, then the development came naturally. We found a way to sing together, then all the elements fell into place naturally.
Will you ever get all the guests together to play the record live?
Not in the immediate future, it’s just too complicated, but from time to time it’s nice to have these artists play with us as guests. Otherwise we’ll just play the album with our normal band.
Folila is out now on Because Records.